Bangladesh President Abdul Hamid has approved a controversial new digital security law that rights groups fear could be used to further erode press freedoms and dissenting voices online.
The Digital Security Act, which was given presidential assent Monday, combines the colonial-era Official Secrets Act with new measures empowering police to make arrests without a warrant.
Amnesty International described the new law as imposing “dangerous restrictions on freedom of expression” and pointed to its potential to be used against opposition voices who challenge the government online.
Journalists have drawn attention to several vaguely-defined clauses within the new law that they say threaten free speech. These include Section 25(a), that authorizes sentences of up to three years for publishing information that is “aggressive or frightening,” and Section 31, that imposes sentences of up to 10 years for posting information that “ruins communal harmony or creates instability or disorder or disturbs or is about to disturb the law and order situation.”
The law, which was originally passed by parliament on September 19, replaces the Information and Communication Technology Act (ICT), which was also heavily criticized by journalists and human rights groups.
“Day by day the situation is worsening, this is the darkest period in the name of Bangladesh’s democracy” said Dr Asif Nazrul, professor of law at Dhaka university and columnist for national newspaper Prothom Alo.
The government Information Minister Hasanul Haq Inu has refuted the criticism, arguing that the digital law is necessary to “safeguard the digital space and society.”
“It is not a law against mass media or democracy” Haq Inu told CNN.
Bangladesh ranks 146th in the Reporters Without Borders world press freedom index, behind countries such as Myanmar, Cambodia and South Sudan. It has slipped from 118th when the index began in 2002.
The US ambassador to Bangladesh, Marcia Bernicat, said last month in a statement that the “Digital Security Act (DSA) could be used to suppress and criminalize free speech, all to the detriment of Bangladesh’s democracy, development and prosperity.”
The introduction of the new law comes amid what campaigners allege is a widening repression of opposition voices ahead of elections later this year.
In a report released earlier this month, the Dhaka-based Odhikar group highlighted a worrying spate of what it called “enforced disappearances” of opposition leaders, students and activists.
In September alone, the rights group claims 30 people were allegedly picked up by law enforcement agencies without explanation — a sharp jump from a total of 28 in the first eight months of the year.
Of those who went missing in September, the group says 26 were belatedly confirmed to have been arrested. Odhikar said three were found dead, and one remains missing.
“The fear that opposition leaders and activists could be subjected to enforced disappearance ahead of upcoming elections are now taking place in reality” said the group.
The disappearances have added to a climate of fear in the South Asian country.
“People are disappearing every single day and activists can’t even hold a peaceful procession” said Jyormitroy Barua, an advocate of the Bangladesh Supreme Court. “The government want to stop dissent, they want to create fear among the people” he explained.
In the report Odhikar also accuses the government of obstructing opposition meetings and protests.
Ishanul Karim, press secretary to Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, declined to comment on these allegations.
The report comes on the heels of international outcry over the treatment of prominent photojournalist Shahidul Alam, who has been kept behind bars for over two months following an interview with Al Jazeera, where he accused the government of clinging on to power by “brute force.”
A joint statement signed by 25 human rights organizations, including the Committee to Protect Journalists and Amnesty International, called for Alam’s “immediate and unconditional release,” slamming the allegations against him as “a blatant violation of his right to freedom of expression.”